Retire? Not yet. Paul Mainieri's last LSU team just keeps on winning
The LSU baseball team keeps on playing.
So coach Paul Mainieri’s career keeps on going.
Mainieri announced May 28 that he would retire at the end of this season, not knowing if this season would even continue.
The Tigers had just lost to Georgia in the first round of the SEC Tournament and they were hopeful but not assured of receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Three days later, LSU was named the No. 3 seed in the Eugene (Oregon) Regional, so Mainieri’s 39-year career and 15-year tenure with the Tigers wasn’t over.
But after a 3-0 loss to second-seeded Gonzaga on Friday – LSU’s first loss in a regional opener since 1985 – the Tigers’ season and Mainieri’s career were one defeat from ending.
But neither has ended.
LSU eliminated Central Connecticut State on Saturday and sent Gonzaga home on Sunday afternoon to reach the regional final.
The Tigers beat top-seeded and undefeated Oregon on Sunday night to force a winner-take-all finale on Monday night.
“I guess these guys want me to keep working,” Mainieri quipped after Sunday’s 4-1 win, “and I’m glad to do that.”
He was really glad to keep working after a 9-8 victory over the Ducks on Monday night.
Mainieri’s last LSU baseball team isn’t his best team.
But it is heading to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a Super Regional against Tennessee – 2 victories away from the Tigers’ 6th, and least likely, trip to the College World Series.
This LSU team has had to play from behind virtually the entire season, but it’s 1 of 16 college teams that will keep playing baseball next weekend.
Monday’s victory was the 1,503rd for the winningest active coach in the NCAA in the 2,288th game of his career.
Mainieri’s stat line from Baton Rouge needs little enhancement, but this team continues to add to it:
- 1 College World Series championship (2009)
- 1 College World Series runner-up finish (2017)
- 5 College World Series appearances
- 9 regional championships (after Monday night)
- 6 SEC Tournament championships
- 4 SEC regular-season championships.
Mainieri, a 2014 inductee of the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, is the second-most successful baseball coach in Tigers history.
No. 1, of course, is Skip Bertman, whose 5 CWS titles are second only to the 10 won by USC legend Rod Dedeaux.
Bertman was LSU athletic director when he hired Mainieri to replace Smoke Laval, Bertman’s top assistant who coached the first 5 seasons of the post-Bertman era.
Mainieri didn’t have the burden of immediately succeeding Bertman as Laval did, but nonetheless his tenure was still viewed within the context of what Bertman had accomplished.
“Man, Skip made it look easy, but it’s hard to win national championships,” Mainieri said when he announced his retirement. “I found that out the hard way, unfortunately.”
A second championship remains unlikely, but the Tigers’ performance over the weekend suggests it’s not out of the question.
The expectations for Mainieri became even more burdensome after he led LSU to the CWS championship in just his 3rd season (2009). The inability to win another title despite a trip to the final against Florida just 4 years ago and 3 other trips to Omaha, have hung over the final few years of Mainieri’s tenure.
He has taken LSU to 12 regionals in 14 seasons (there was no tournament last season because of COVID-19).
But the Tigers aren’t used to sweating out an NCAA bid like they did this year. They’re used to hosting and winning regionals and usually hosting (and often winning) super regionals, not traveling across the country and battling through a series of elimination games like they have done this year.
This wasn’t a typical Mainieri team or season, and, Mainieri, 63, admitted, neither was he the same coach he had been.
He has had 2 operations that have alleviated, but not cured, chronic neck pain he has endured for nearly 3 years. The neck pain ultimately triggered chronic headaches.
“I just haven’t felt myself for the last couple of years,” Mainieri said. “I think it’s really affected the way I’ve been able to coach because as a coach, I think that one of my greatest strengths has been to be very engaged with the players – you know, pitching batting practice and talking to the players and just getting active with them. I just haven’t been able to do that as much the last couple years.
“I don’t think I’ve been a bad coach, but I just don’t think that I’ve been the same coach. I just thought that maybe the program would be better served if somebody else was leading it.”
And so someone else will.
Mainieri said he always considered himself “the custodian” of the program Bertman built, and his goal upon being hired was lofty but realistic – to be “the second-best coach in the history of LSU.”
Regardless of what happens in Knoxville and perhaps beyond, whoever succeeds Mainieri will have quite a challenge to become what he aspired to be and easily became.